Pete Buttigieg won the last debate, but can he actually beat Joe Biden?

Pete Buttigieg won the last debate, but can he actually beat Joe Biden?
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With the Iowa caucuses only weeks away, seven Democratic candidates stood on the debate stage in California and alleviated the concerns of primary voters. In what many had expected to be another forgettable debate, Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegLGBTQ voters must show up at the polls, or risk losing progress Buttigieg says it's time to 'turn the page' on Trump administration Sunday shows preview: Coronavirus cases surge in the Midwest; Trump hits campaign trail after COVID-19 MORE rose to the occasion and took advantage of his frontrunner treatment. He not only managed to defend himself against attacks, but also landed the type of blows that have evaded his run. Make no mistake, the seven candidates did a fine job, but only one was able to successfully separate himself from the other Democrats on stage and bring new voters to his fray. That candidate happened to be Buttigieg.

For all the hand wringing and consternation from many Democrats on whether the South Bend mayor was prepared for the bright lights, his performance in the latest debate could perhaps silence even his most ardent critics. Buttigieg did not simply defend his record from attacks by Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, he responded in an authentic tone that has evaded his past debate performances and has been the missing ingredient in a campaign that sorely needed a breakout moment. As he did earlier this year, Buttigieg has exceeded expectations and seems like the type of change candidate that Democrats have been searching for.

While far from perfect, he looked like a leader on a stage that included a former vice president and several senators. Some thought this feat, given his age and the optics, might be impossible for a candidate who has only held local office. But all those concerns were put to bed after his debate performance. While a lot of work must be done to tighten his message and take his campaign to the next level, it is undeniable that the mayor from a relatively small town in Indiana, with little national exposure this time last year, came across as the steady hand that is needed to defeat President TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE in what will most certainly be an ugly general election.


Buttgieg was not the only candidate to boost his profile. The way Andrew Yang reacted to a question regarding lack of diversity on the debate stage symbolized the authentic response that his campaign has now become synonymous with. Pundits such as myself, who have dismissed Yang as a single issue candidate lacking the top level of gravitas required for the presidency, are now forced to view him as the underdog who actually outlasted many competitors and earned the right to be taken seriously.

Democrats should take solace in the performance of the entire field of candidates in the latest debate. Every single one of them on the stage in Los Angeles would not only be a better president than Donald Trump but would restore decency to an office that has suffered over the last three years. The question for Democratic voters at this point in the campaign is which candidate is best positioned to take on the president in the general election next year. That kind of candidate still appears to be Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida Supreme Court reinstates ban on curbside voting in Alabama MORE.

Questions about his ability to carry out strong debate performances have plagued his campaign for months, but voters might decide his gaffes are baked into his persona and not a disqualifying factor. Biden has defied all odds and continues to lead the pack in most national and state polls. With the Iowa caucuses approaching, time may be on his side. While Buttigieg did well, no candidate has had a sustained boost as a result of a strong debate performance. If any campaign is going to catch the former vice president, they must do it soon. There will not be many more chances.

Michael Starr Hopkins is the founding partner of Northern Starr Strategies. He served on the Democratic presidential campaigns for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Delaney. Follow him on Twitter @TheOnlyHonest.